This is a talk delivered by SNCC veteran Charles E. Cobb Jr. on Sunday, January 15, 2017 at the People’s Congregational Church in Washington, D.C. on the occassion of the Dr. Martin Luther King holiday.
By Charles E. Cobb
My thanks to Rev. Hopson, the congregation of Peoples church, and especially the church’s Board of Christian Social Action for inviting me here. I grew up in the Congregational church. My father Rev. Charles E. Cobb pastored St. John’s Congregational Church in Springfield Massachusetts, and later co-founded the UCC’s Commission for Racial Justice and became its first executive director. So I feel like I have come back home and welcome the opportunity to speak to you. Thank you.
My friend and former co-worker in the movement Julian Bond, who is greatly missed, used to say that the primary misconception in the public’s perception of the southern civil rights movement can be boiled down to three short sentences. “Rosa sat down. Martin stood up. And then the white folks saw the light and saved the day.”
In the minds of many, the movement is thought of as mass protest in public spaces led by charismatic leaders. That is only partly true, however. The organizing tradition—a very old tradition, with roots in slave rebellions—better describes the movement. And, I want to push this forward as what is most relevant for continuing struggle in the 21st century as well as properly understanding movement history. And that does not mean that mass protest—those of yesteryear and those now, contradicts this tradition.
My approach to discussing the movement this morning is from the bottom up, or put another way, from the inside out since I was very much involved with the movement as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC. We were an organization of grassroots organizers.
First, as much as the movement challenged segregation, racial discrimination and white supremacy, fundamental to real understanding of the movement are the challenges black people made to one another within the black community. This underappreciated dimension of the movement is as important today as it was more than half a century ago. Maybe even more important now, given the kind of violence we are witnessing in Chicago and other cities.
Martin Luther King was born today in 1929; we are celebrating his work. So before going further, let me tell you a story about Reverend King that is relevant to the point I have just made.
Few people give enough thought to the fact that before he achieved national and international renown as a civil rights leader, Martin Luther King was a young local minister in Montgomery, Alabama. How he emerged is important to understanding the emergence of the bus boycott there, which was driven by local people at the grassroots.
After Rosa Parks’s arrest, black Montgomery organized a highly successful one-day bus boycott. I am tempted here to discuss Mrs. Parks at length. She was much more than a weary dressmaker seeking a place to sit on the bus. As she put it, her life was “a history of being rebellious.”
At the end of the day, Montgomery’s black leadership—many of them ministers—met in Martin Luther King’s church to discuss continuing the boycott until the city committed to desegregation of bus seating. Most who spoke, expressed various degrees of reluctance and fear about doing this. Finally, the preeminent black leader of Montgomery—E.D. Nixon, one of A. Phillip Randolph’s union men and the former head of Alabama’s NAACP—rose and spoke. As the story came to me from Johnnie Carr, 95-years old when she was telling it, and part of a core group of women who had been working with Rosa Parks since the 1940s, Nixon basically accused the gathering of cowardice: “You preachers been eating these women’s fried chicken long enough without doing anything for them.” It was women, after all, riding buses across town into the white community to jobs as housekeepers and cooks and nursemaids who suffered regular humiliation traveling on public transportation. “Now,” Mr. Nixon continued, “it’s time to get up off your butts and do something for them!” It was then that a 26-year-old Martin Luther King stood up. Do we even think of Martin Luther King as a 26-year-old? “I am not a coward!” He said. The embarrassed gathering agreed to continue the boycott and Rev. King was elected head of the organization they formed at that meeting to continue the boycott—The Montgomery Improvement Association.
The way to understand this moment, I hope you see, is by understanding the kind of challenges black people were making to one another across the south. This is what drove struggle and change. Much of this still remains invisible. And broadening this with an almost equally invisible related point: The Movement thrust forward leaders, not the other way around.
However, as important as he was, I am not here this morning to discuss Martin Luther King. I intend to concentrate instead on Mississippi and its lessons, particularly as they apply to these times. That is the state where I worked as a SNCC field secretary from 1962 until 1967, and the state I know the best.
The vicious racial oppression that once so completely defined this state establishes a special kind of clarity for us this morning. To illustrate this, in a moment I will read to you a description of an encounter reported by another friend, and comrade, and hero from the days of Mississippi’s mid-20th century freedom struggle. Sam Block is his name. He, like almost everyone who formed the backbone of the southern Movement, is invisible and he died far too young from both the physical and psychological traumas of that struggle.
The words will come from a 1962 field report Sam wrote describing the early days of his efforts to organize around voter registration in the Mississippi Delta. Sam was the first of us—meaning the first of us who were young—18, 19, 20, 21 22 and 23-years-old—to organize for voting rights in the Mississippi Delta—cotton plantation country. The Delta was a vicious place where most black life had been reduced to plantation serfdom following the dismemberment of Reconstruction. The Delta was where the White Citizens Council was born. Sam began working in a town where the White Citizens Council was particularly powerful—Greenwood—county seat of Leflore County. Greenwood and the rest of the county, like most other Delta towns and counties, was two thirds black. When Sam arrived, there were more than 13,000 voting-age blacks in Leflore County, but only about 200 had succeeded in being registered. Listen to Sam’s report. The N-word, as we now say in polite company, is used in it; but it is necessary, I think. However, I apologize in advance for any discomfort its use causes. Here’s Sam:
We went up to register and it was the first time visiting the courthouse in Greenwood, Mississippi, and the sheriff came up to me and he asked me, he said, “Nigger where you from?” I told him, “Well I’m a native Mississippian.” He said, “Yeh, yeh, I know that, but where you from? I don’t know where you from.” I said, “Well, around some counties.” He said, “Well I know that, I know you ain’t from here ‘cause I know every nigger and his mammy.” I said, “You know all the niggers, do you know any colored people?” He got angry. He spat in my face and he walked away. So he came back and turned around and told me, “I don’t want to see you in town any more. The best thing you better do is pack your clothes and get out and don’t never come back no more.” I said, “Well, sheriff, if you don’t want to see me here, I think the best thing for you to do is pack your clothes and leave, get out of town, ‘cause I’m here to stay; I came here to do a job and this is my intention. I’m going to do this job…”
Now I think this exchange, which took place on the steps of the Leflore County courthouse, explains everything you need to know about the movement. Sam’s words were a promise and a prediction. Along with Sam, those of us in SNCC and CORE especially, dug in and stayed to do the job; were committed to doing the job, and drawing from deep wells of strength in black communities, broke the back of apartheid in Mississippi. But the outcome did not just affect Mississippi; it changed America. The job we did resulted in changing forever the rules of the national Democratic Party and that is what laid the groundwork for the Obama presidency. This is not boast, but history. Basically: In fighting for the right to vote—and winning—the door was opened to the possibility of winning any elected office, even the highest in the land. As the black abolitionist Fredrick Douglass pointed out more than 150 years ago and it’s as relevant now as then, “If there is no struggle there is no progress.” I stand here in praise of our struggle, and to testify that the violence underlying the Greenwood Sherriff’s words reveal the blood-soaked ground in Mississippi and across the American south that has been the price of progress. I stand here to insist that this must never be forgotten, and that there is a debt, a duty—an obligation we have—all of us—to repay this history with continuing struggle.
Approaching this history, there are, of course, some legitimate questions you may want answered in trying to grasp why I think Sam’s courthouse encounter with the sheriff was so significant. Who was Sam Block? He was only 22 when this happened; that’s kind of young, isn’t it? How did he get to Greenwood? What made him stay in defiance of the sheriff’s threat? The larger question is: Is there something we can use here today?
So, let’s look more closely at Sam. Youth comes immediately to mind in this consideration. As I said, he was just 22-years-old at the time of his confrontation with the sheriff. Largely missing from the narrative about the civil rights movement is that in many instances it was led by young people like Sam. To quote Martin Luther King speaking in support of sit-ins at a February 16, 1960 civil rights rally in Durham, North Carolina: “What is new in your fight is the fact that it was initiated, fed, and sustained by students.”
I was a 12th grade high school student when on February 1, 1960 the sit-in movement erupted in Greensboro, North Carolina. Black students there began refusing to leave whites only lunch counters and restaurants. Within two months such protests had spread to 80 southern cities. The student protests in Nashville, Tennessee, Atlanta, Georgia, and other southern cities that year, reached us via television and newspapers—especially black newspapers. And for me and most of my friends, before seeing these sit-ins, civil rights had been something grown-ups did. Now, looking at young people like Diane Nash or John Lewis or Julian Bond—students, my generation—what was coming through to us was that civil rights struggle was something we could do.
We see something similar in the way that protests over the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin in Sanford Florida have led to an ever-expanding Movement for Black Lives that is led by young people. A whole new set of young leaders has begun to emerge and lay claim to the future they want to live in; launched a fight for their future. As a SNCC veteran, I see a lot of my younger self in this, and applaud it.
Sam was also one of Amzie Moore’s people. That’s who sent him, via SNCC to Greenwood. SNCC, which grew out of the sit-in movement had by 1962 evolved into an organization of organizers, working closely and at the grassroots with older veterans of civil rights struggle—many of them local NAACP leaders like Amzie. You won’t know his name any more than you knew Sam’s, but you need to know some things about Amzie because understanding what he represents is another essential component of any real discussion about the movement.
Amzie Moore was the president of the Cleveland, Mississippi NAACP where Sam had been born and grew up, and had decided that he wanted to tap into and use the young energy he saw in the sit-in students. He admired what the students were doing, but was not interested in organizing sit-ins in his town; he wanted a voter registration campaign. He put that idea on our political plate, challenging our idea that “direct action” only meant sit-ins and picket lines of protest. Amize wanted to see the emergence of black power in the Delta. The black people were there; the registered black voters were not.
As we began working in the Delta, Amzie Moore’s home was our central headquarters. His house was an orientation center, a place for breakfast of scrambled eggs or for a spaghetti dinner; it provided telephone connections and was always full of conversation as well as Amzie’s sometimes grim, sometimes funny stories of Delta life and earlier civil rights struggle. Floodlights washed his backyard because he was certain that one night Ku Klux Klansmen, or white terrorists of some sort, would attack his home. Often Amzie, who had fought the Nazis overseas after all, sat in the bay window of his living room with rifles and pistols, waiting to repel an attack he was certain would come (which may be why it never came).
Our relationship with Amzie puts into perspective yet another important dimension of the movement: The convergence of young people—like Sam…or myself—with older people like Amzie—he was 49- years-old when we met him. I had just turned nineteen in 1962. They were willing to share their experiences and open up to us, networks that they had built over many years, even decades, of struggle.
Ella Baker introduced us to Amzie. She was 59-years-old. You cannot talk of 20th century civil rights struggle without discussing this remarkable woman. And let me also say as an aside here, although it should really be central to any discussion, that you cannot talk about 20th century civil rights struggle without discussing the leadership of women. Ms. Baker was the NAACP’s Director of Southern Branches in the 1940s, was the person who organized Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) after the 1955-56 Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott. She immediately recognized the significance and potential of the emerging student sit-in movement in 1960 and negotiated 800 dollars from Rev. King to bring student protest leaders together at her alma mater, Shaw College in Raleigh, North Carolina. Out of this meeting came SNCC. As much as anyone, and more than most, her hands and her brains shaped the theory and methods of community organizing which defines the modern civil rights movement. Her main lesson: Organize from the bottom up. “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.”
Although a number of historical forces mark the era of modern civil rights struggle, in my opinion, the convergence of some very particular and very critical forces laid the foundation for the modern mid-20th century struggle from which there would be no turning back: the commitment to democracy and human rights embedded in the rhetoric of World War Two’s fight against fascism, the accelerating struggles for decolonization in Africa and Asia, post war economic and educational opportunity in the United States with so much of the world in rubble, and finally: the1954 supreme court decision in Brown v. Board of Education which began the process of dismantling the legal framework which underwrote U.S. apartheid. Importantly, that decision engendered hope, one of the indispensable ingredients for resistance.
What uniquely marks the era, though, is that in large numbers, people who were usually spoken for by others, began to speak for themselves, and not only that, spoke for themselves in such a way that they could not be ignored. This is very important so let me restate it in a slightly different way: Ordinary people who were usually spoken for by sympathetic advocates, or of, by hostile white supremacists, began speaking for themselves saying “this is what we demand; this is the kind of society in which we wish to live.” Montgomery, Alabama’s mid-1950s bus boycott and the now almost completely forgotten student struggle in 1951 Farmville, Virginia may be the post-World War II events that best represent this. I also think the person who probably best symbolizes this is Fannie Lou Hamer of Mississippi. She was a sharecropper and timekeeper on a Delta cotton plantation who became not only a leader of Mississippi’s 1960s movement, but a great national voice for civil rights. In any case, maids, sharecroppers, day workers, cooks, janitors, farmers, factory workers, beauticians and barbers, as I said, ordinary people who were usually spoken for or of—these voices began to be heard, or at least could no longer be ignored in the mid 20th century. And, through organization and direct action they changed a way of life.
It is worth noting as we seem to have entered an era where civil liberties are being eroded in the name of national security that the civil rights movement forced the issue of civil liberties. In 1963 Bernard Lafayette, one of the leaders of the Nashville Student Movement organized the first civil rights mass meeting in Selma, Alabama. When Sheriff Jim Clark burst in with his deputies and disrupted the meeting he was armed with a warrant from the circuit judge empowering him to prevent “insurrection.” And in the months leading up to the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project approached, the state legislature passed a “criminal syndicalism,” law. It empowered local authorities to redefine organized civil rights struggle (or labor union organizing) as “terrorism” with 10 years of imprisonment possible for any person who, “By word of mouth or written words or personal conduct advocates, instigates, suggests, teaches or aids and abets criminal syndicalism or the duty, necessity, propriety or expediency of committing crime, criminal syndicalism, sabotage, violence or any other unlawful method of terrorism as a means of accomplishing or effecting a change in agricultural or industrial ownership or control or effecting any political or social change….” Whew! After the first group of people tried to register to vote in Sunflower County, Mississippi, white nightriders shot up the black community. In Ruleville, a tiny Delta town, two girls were wounded. I was arrested for the shooting, by the mayor, who said I had done it to gain publicity for a failing movement. I was let go the next morning. If also charged and convicted as a criminal syndicalist I could have had 10 years in jail added to whatever sentence I was given for the shooting.
Looking across today’s political landscape I cannot say that such oppressive legislation is no longer possible. Fear often leads to tyranny.
In the United States today, with civil rights and civil liberties so vulnerable, the most important lesson of the civil rights movement is still relevant. You have to make a demand for the kind of society in which you want to live—especially if you want to live in a free society. As we used to say, “Freedom is not free.”
And this brings us to the Movement for Black Lives today. Alicia Garza, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter wrote a year or so ago, “When we say Black Lives Matter, we are talking about the ways in which Black people are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity. It is an acknowledgement [that] Black poverty and genocide is state violence. It is an acknowledgment that 1 million Black people are locked in cages in this country–one half of all people in prisons or jails–is an act of state violence. It is an acknowledgment that Black women continue to bear the burden of a relentless assault on our children and our families and that assault is an act of state violence.” Ms. Garza’s framing mirrors the concerns with systemic oppression that we held while fighting for change in the South.
I, for one, think their protests have been powerful and effective. Now they face the question of organizing beyond protest, a question we had to face too. A question we also have to face is how to support this young movement. We might begin by talking to them seriously about their ideas. I believe the earlier movement history I have offered here can be of some use to the young people working to maintain our ongoing struggle today. Obviously, while not everything from our era will be useful for 21st century activists, there is a core reality that strong movements are built by developing inclusive relationships capable of knitting together strategies formed as a result of listening to ordinary people’s experiences and ideas for change. More than any single thing this is what the movement did in order to engage in effective struggle. I think doing this in the black urban communities that now form the heart of black America is much more difficult than what we were faced with in the rural south of the 1960s, but the basic principle of digging in and finding a language that works remains fundamental. This is a conversation we do not have time for this morning. But I do know that this discussion has begun among some of the groups that form the Movement for Black Lives. So, as the Mozambicans used to say in their struggle for independence from Portugal—a Luta Continua, the struggle continues.
Finally, I ask you to consider this which can serve as a theme for today’s struggle as much as it served as the founding principles of the United States in 1787:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
For all the contradictions found throughout U.S. history this is the core, though still unrealized, ideal of the country. But do we really want to do this? Government as we’ve known it since the country’s inception has always been ambivalent and at many times, hostile to this ideal. And this idea is really the heart of my message to you this morning; what we learn in the passage of time from Martin Luther King’s emergence to the now of Black Lives Matter. It’s the emergence of ordinary people as leaders and spokespeople who are the real force for change—people who keep their eyes on the prize, as the old song goes. And today, this need is more urgent than it has ever been. And perhaps, too, more possible. I am, in effect, challenging each one of you to be the change. A luta continua.
Peoples Congregational Church
January 15, 2017
Charles E. Cobb Jr. is a former field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a journalist, and the author of a number of books including This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (Basic Books, 2014). Read more.
What kind of country is this going to be? This was the urgent question posed in the period immediately following the U.S. Civil War. When students learn about Reconstruction, if they learn about this period at all, too often they learn how the presidents and Congress battled over the answer to this question. Textbooks and curricula emphasize what was done to or for newly freed people, but usually not how they acted to define their own freedom.
This role play asks students to imagine themselves as people who were formerly enslaved and to wrestle with a number of issues about what they needed to ensure genuine “freedom”: ownership of land—and what the land would be used for; the fate of Confederate leaders; voting rights; self-defense; and conditions placed on the former Confederate states prior to being allowed to return to the Union.
The role play’s premise is that the end of the war presented people in our country with a key turning point, that there existed at this moment an opportunity to create a society with much greater equality and justice.
The role play is followed by chapter 11 of Freedom’s Unfinished Revolution: An Inquiry into the Civil War and Reconstruction (New Press, 1996) with discussion questions.
The Reconstruction Era and the Fragility of Democracy is comprehensive collection of readings, primary documents, video clips, and writing lessons. Produced by Facing History and Ourselves in 2015, the resources are available online for free access by teachers.
A few examples of the documents provided in this unit:
The more I read and learned about the Standing Rock resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline, the more obvious it became that this story must make its way into my curriculum. Here was a fascinating and important story—a story that literally cannot be told without recognizing Native peoples as full participants in their own, and U.S., history.
I put out a call to other teachers, educators, and activists who might be interested in collaborating on some curriculum. I wanted to roll out the lessons in the days before or after Thanksgiving. This timing, I believed, would be a powerful symbolic rejection of the lies about Indian people promulgated in our national Thanksgiving myths, in favor of a real story, about real Indians, leading a powerful movement in the 21st century. Joined in the work by my fellow Lake Oswego High School teacher, Andrew Duden, and Rethinking Schools curriculum editor Bill Bigelow, we quickly agreed that the story lent itself well to a role play and got to work.
Before launching the role play, we wanted to give students a visceral and visual sense of the resistance under way along the Missouri River. We thought immediately of Amy Goodman’s wonderful coverage on Democracy Now!, and specifically, of the horrifying footage of the use of dogs against protestors/Water Protectors by a private security firm (Democracy Now!, 2016). We also used “The Standing Rock Protests by the Numbers,” a short documentary posted at the Los Angeles Times (Etehad and Tchekmedyian, 2016). We asked students to jot down questions that emerged as they watched. Afterward, students shared out their questions and it didn’t take long for them to recognize and frame many of the fundamental issues at stake. Gavin asked, “Are the protestors more angry about the possibility of oil spills or that they’re building on burial grounds?” Kisa asked, “What guarantee does the pipeline company have against the breaking or leaking of the pipe?” Tatum wrote, “Is this pipeline really needed? What is it for? Can they move it somewhere else?” Vivian asked, “Who owns the land the pipeline is being built through?” Finally, Callie wondered, “Does the government care about what could happen to the water of these tribes?” These questions not only built toward the role play to come, but also generated possible research questions for the entire unit.
We liked the idea of a role play for a couple reasons. Our first and most important goal was to create a context for students to confront the complex social reality of the Dakota Access Pipeline and the resistance movement to which it has given rise. That social reality includes the history and contemporary status of Indigenous rights, the power of the fossil fuel industry, the support for pipeline infrastructure from segments of organized labor, and the extent to which our government is protecting—or failing to protect—the land, water, and air. The role play asks students to explore these complicated dynamics as active participants. Reading about historical figures is like standing on the sidewalk looking at a house: You can recognize its basic shape, color, and perhaps how many levels it has. Actually assuming the identity of these historical figures allows you to step through the front door and explore what’s inside: How many rooms does it have? What’s the function of each? How are they connected? Which is the most spacious and light? Which the darkest and most cramped? Is it well-built or flimsy? We hoped this role play would enable students to navigate the #noDAPL movement from inside the house, rather than as a bystander peering in from outside. Another of our considerations was that at the moment we were writing, there was little mainstream media attention directed toward Standing Rock, so in some way, the role play was aspirational—a way of insisting that this is a Big Deal, even if that is not reflected in the media. Our aim was for students to know what was happening, but also, perhaps what was not happening, and to begin to wonder about why.
The setting of the role play is a meeting, called by the president, to hear input on whether the Dakota Access Pipeline should be completed. Students, representing five different groups, must convince him that the project should be abandoned or allowed to proceed. Two of the groups are in direct conflict:
The other three groups we selected provide additional context on the question of whether the pipeline should be built:
After sorting students into five table groups, we distributed the role sheets, which outline each group’s beliefs and interests. We asked students to read and underline important information in their roles. Next we had students answer three questions:
In this beautiful book, Greg Jobin-Leeds and AgitArte set out to articulate lessons from the emerging 21st-century “social movements and the activists that are transforming our world.” In his introduction, Jobin-Leeds explains that for five years he asked activists—from the LGBTQ, environmental justice, education, immigrant rights, Black Lives Matter, and economic justice movements—what lessons they would like to pass on to future activists. The book’s six chapters are built around the insights he gleaned.
Each chapter features a core narrative, along with interviews, short classroom-friendly readings, photographs, and startling posters (some created by Rethinking Schools contributors Favianna Rodriguez, Meredith Stern, Julio Salgado, and Ricardo Levins Morales). At this moment in history, it’s more important than ever that young people recognize how their futures are tied to the vitality of social movements. When We Fight We Win! is a valuable resource for educators as we help students come to see themselves as activists. [Description by Rethinking Schools.]
ISBN: 9781620970935 | Published by The New Press.
As part of the campaign to Abolish Columbus Day, we present this how-to guide based on the experience of a Massachusetts Indigenous group in a city campaign that involved local community members and students. Visit our related lessons and resources page. Also read the article “Truth-Telling in American History: Groups Fight for Indigenous Peoples Day” that discusses some challenges other communities have overcome.
We had an amazing victory in June 2016 in the city of Cambridge, Mass., when Columbus Day was abolished and Indigenous Peoples Day declared. There were many Indigenous and other people working behind the scenes to garner public support for this campaign, and it took a persistent effort over several months to make sure that the City Council would do the right thing. We were fortunate also in having some strong support on the city council, and this snowballed into a unanimous vote on their part. Key elements were having a consistent campaign and message, bringing in Indigenous and non-Native people to testify before city council, enlisting letters and phone calls from many sectors in Cambridge, and drafting a resolution that also explained the need for the name change. We also were very fortunate to have a wonderful group of 8th graders — who had learned the truth about Columbus from their amazing social studies teacher — come in and give a presentation to City Council!
We respectfully offer a few points below to anyone who is thinking of starting a campaign elsewhere, based not only on the Cambridge campaign but on the study of other campaigns. We have now undertaken a more broad-based campaign in Boston and are seeking in our work to implement these strategies.
1. Educate about Columbus Day. A lot of people still don’t understand why Columbus should not be celebrated. Many non-Native people know nothing about our genocide, past or present. We have run across non-Native people who do not even think any Native people are still alive.
2. Explain what Indigenous Peoples Day is and why it is necessary. To do this, you will also need to talk about the Indigenous history of the area, past and present, and get a deep understanding of what Indigenous Peoples Day is all about.
3. Implement Indigenous Peoples Day. Once you get an Indigenous Peoples Day resolution passed, you will also need to ensure that something is done to honor the day. Some people may consider it a celebration, while others may believe it should be a day of education, or a day to mourn Native ancestors and learn about Indigenous history. That will require a process of Native community consultation.
1. Make a Plan. Think deeply about who lives in your city, who is on elected bodies, who your allies and opponents may be, what the political process is where you live. Think about which elected officials can be key allies, and plan to meet with them early in order to get their sponsorship. Study what has happened in some other cities so that you get a sense of what has worked in the past. This is serious work, so you should not enter into it without a plan. You may also need to think about building some infrastructure such as a social media presence, an online petition, online signup forms, things like that.
If you have a generally reactionary city council with no key allies, this might not be the time to bring a resolution forward. You can still undertake educational work to lay the groundwork, though. You might also consider whether work can be done via a different body such as a school board. Perhaps your efforts could be better put to use somewhere else nearby at this time, or you might decide to go ahead nonetheless for lots of reasons. You will need to think strategically about what to do.
2. Make alliances.
Remember: The voices and viewpoints of Elders are always very important in Native cultures. It is also very important to gather in youth and students and ensure they have meaningful roles. Make everyone in the circle of support feel important and welcome.
3. Make it local. We have a draft resolution at our website and you can also look at resolutions that have been passed in other cities. Some of the resolutions have a lot of clauses, and some are quite brief. Regardless, you will need to make the resolution and campaign specific to the locality. Make sure to reference specific Indigenous Nations from the area and specific local and regional history. You may need to do some research first to do this. Our being able to speak about the Indigenous history of Cambridge had a big impact. We were able to point out that it was not even mentioned on the city’s website, as though the land had been empty before the arrival of the Europeans.
4. Consult! At the same time that you are keeping it local, you should never hesitate to contact those of us in other cities who have been involved in one of these campaigns. We are in the process of posting many documents and links at our website http://www.indigenouspeoplesdayma.org/ in the hope that other people in other places will find something useful for their own campaigns instead of starting from scratch. [Editor’s note: the Zinn Education Project also has a resource page with a map and sample resolutions to consult. ]
5. Keep it positive. While we were doing the Cambridge campaign and some people were starting to get bogged down with reacting to a small amount of opposition, Matt Remle from Seattle gave us important advice, which was not to argue with the pro-Columbus Day folks and not to get negative with them. Keep the message positive and make it clear that Indigenous Peoples day is a win for the city and an important first step for everyone involved. Some people will surprise you by stepping up to support your campaign, some people will not change their minds no matter what you do or say, and some people just need to be educated. The struggle for Indigenous Peoples Day is an important part of reconciliation and is ultimately a spiritual as well as political struggle, so remember the ancestors and stay on a moral high ground.
6. Struggle on many fronts.
7. Testify. Once you are on a roll and have a resolution that is being sponsored, insist on a special public hearing at the city council so that you can bring many people forward to testify. Pack the hearing with supporters. If possible, bring written statements that can be distributed to media and others and also make sure the testimony is videotaped.
8. Don’t give up! Sometimes a resolution will be passed in a matter of months, but sometimes it will take years of education and hard work to make Indigenous Peoples Day a reality. It can feel heartbreaking to testify before a government body about the negative impacts on our children of celebrating Columbus Day and the genocide that Indigenous peoples have faced for centuries, only to have hard-faced politicians refuse to listen or support Indigenous Peoples Day. But just keep trying! Sooner or later, a change is gonna come.
Originally posted at lastrealindians.com. Reprinted here with permission of the author.
Slavery by Another Name challenges one of our country’s most cherished assumptions: the belief that slavery ended with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. The documentary recounts how in the years following the Civil War, insidious new forms of forced labor emerged in the American South, keeping hundreds of thousands of African Americans in bondage, trapping them in a brutal system that would persist until the onset of World War II.
Based on Blackmon’s research, Slavery by Another Name spans eight decades, from 1865 to 1945, revealing the interlocking forces in both the South and the North that enabled this “neoslavery” to begin and persist. Using archival photographs and dramatic re-enactments filmed on location in Alabama and Georgia, it tells the forgotten stories of both victims and perpetrators of neoslavery and includes interviews with their descendants living today. The program also features interviews with Douglas Blackmon and with leading scholars of this period. [Description from PBS.]
Directed by Sam Pollard, produced by Catherine Allan and Douglas Blackmon, written by Sheila Curran Bernard, based on the 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Blackmon.
Watch online at PBS.
Through the true story of John Roy Lynch, children learn some of the seldom-taught history of Reconstruction. Born into slavery, Lynch decided to stay in his native Mississippi at the end of the Civil War to work with other African Americans to reshape the state and the country. Lynch became a photographer, went to night school, and bought land. Known for his fairness, he was appointed justice of the peace and later elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. But those advances were short-lived.
As Chris Barton explains: “U.S. congressman or not, a Black man could still find himself barred from certain hotels. But that wasn’t the worst of it—not by far. Back home, white terrorists burned Black schools and Black churches. They armed themselves on Election Day. They even committed murder.”
Due to the graphic portrayal of violence, this book is best for mid- to upper-elementary students. [Description by Rethinking Schools.]
ISBN: 9780802853790 | Published by Eerdmans Books.
On September 9, 1971, nearly 1,300 prisoners took over the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York to protest years of mistreatment. Holding guards and civilian employees hostage, the prisoners negotiated with officials for improved conditions during the four long days and nights that followed.
On September 13, the state abruptly sent hundreds of heavily armed troopers and correction officers to retake the prison by force. Their gunfire killed 39 men hostages as well as prisoners and severely wounded more than 100 others.
In the ensuing hours, weeks, and months, troopers and officers brutally retaliated against the prisoners. And, ultimately, New York State authorities prosecuted only the prisoners, never once bringing charges against the officials involved in the retaking and its aftermath and neglecting to provide support to the survivors and the families of the men who had been killed.
Drawing from more than a decade of extensive research, historian Heather Ann Thompson sheds new light on every aspect of the uprising and its legacy, giving voice to all those who took part in this 45 year fight for justice: prisoners, former hostages, families of the victims, lawyers and judges, and state officials and members of law enforcement. [Publisher’s description.]
Here is an excerpt from the book,
Despite the sense of foreboding, there were moments of levity and, for some, even a feeling of unexpected joy as men who hadn’t felt the fresh air of night for years reveled in this strange freedom. Out in the dark, music could be heard—“drums, a guitar, vibes, flute, sax, [that] the brothers were playing.” This was the lightest many of the men had felt since being processed into the maximum security facility. That night was in fact a deeply emotional time for all of them. Richard Clark watched in amazement as men embraced each other, and he saw one man break down into tears because it had been so long since he had been “allowed to get close to someone.” Carlos Roche watched as tears of elation ran down the withered face of his friend “Owl,” an old man who had been locked up for decades. “You know,” Owl said in wonderment, “I haven’t seen the stars in 22 years.” As Clark later described this first night of the rebellion, while there was much trepidation about what might occur next, the men in D Yard also felt wonderful, because “no matter what happened later on, they couldn’t take this night away from us.”
September 30, 2016: Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
September 9, 2016: Democracy Now!
More than four million Central Americans reside in the United States today, yet the lack of resources on Central American heritage in most schools make the rich history and literature of the region invisible. Central America is too-often portrayed as simply a strip of land on a map connecting North and South America. Students are left to imagine that their Central American heritage, or that of their peers, is insignificant. Teachers have learned little of the history themselves and there is a scarcity of literature in the school libraries. Teaching for Change has launched a campaign to help fill that gap with resources for teaching about Central America.
The website features:
Very detailed, with extensive quotes from far-ranging original sources. Links Columbus’s legacy to environmental degradation. [Description by Rethinking Schools.]
Christopher Columbus’ arrival on a small Bahamian island in 1492 is often judged to be a defining moment in the history of mankind, changing forever the map of the world. In, Christopher Columbus and the Conquest of Paradise, Kirkpatrick Sale offers readers a unique take on Columbus and his legacy, separating the man from the legend. Sale also looks at the global consequences of the discovery, revealing the colossal impact this brief moment in history had not only on a continent but also on the world. [Publisher’s description.]
ISBN: 9781845111540 | Published by Tauris Parke Paperbacks.
As Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker explain: “Most U.S. citizens’ knowledge about Indians is inaccurate, distorted, or limited to elementary school textbooks, cheesy old spaghetti westerns, or more contemporary films like Dances with Wolves or The Last of the Mohicans.”
All the Real Indians Died Off is an astute and lively primer of European-Indian relations. “Columbus the Discoverer,” the “welcoming Thanksgiving,” Indian “savagery,” “benevolent presidents,” the “gift of reservations,” “honoring” Native Americans with sports mascots, “casinos have made Indians rich”—Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker brilliantly dissect these and other myths. These myths are not just unfortunate. They legitimate the ongoing oppression and exploitation of this country’s First Nations people. The language is not always high school student friendly, but every teacher will learn lots from this fine book. [Description by Rethinking Schools.]
ISBN: 9780807062654 | Published by Beacon Press.
Sylvia Woods, a pioneer in the struggle of African-American and women trade unionists, describes why she decided not to sing the “Star Spangled Banner” at school in 1919 when she was 10 years old. This excerpt is from an interview about her life of activism by Alice and Staughton Lynd, included in Voices of a People’s History of the United States.
I was born March 15, 1909. My father was a roofer. In those days they put slates on the roofs and he was a slater. It was a very skilled job. You had to nail the slate. They used to make a fancy diamond with different colors….
And he was a union man. There was a dual union—one for whites and one for Blacks. He said we should have one big union but a white and a Black is better than none. He was making big money—eight dollars a day. I used to brag that “My father makes eight dollars a day.” But he taught me that, “You got to belong to the union, even if it’s a Black union. If I wasn’t in the union I wouldn’t make eight dollars a day.” …
When I was maybe 10 years old, I changed schools. On the way to school, I had to go through a park that was for white people only. We could walk through the park but we couldn’t stop at all, just pass through it. There were swings in this park and, oh, I so much wanted sometimes to just stop and swing a little while, but we couldn’t because we were Black. I would walk through this park to my school where there weren’t any swings.
Every morning all the kids would line up according to classrooms and we would have prayers and sing the “Star Spangled Banner” and then we’d march to our respective groups after this business.
I decided I wasn’t going to sing the “Star Spangled Banner.” I just stood there every morning and I didn’t sing it. One morning, one of the teachers noticed that I wasn’t doing it. So she very quietly called me over and asked me why didn’t I sing the “Star Spangled Banner.” I said I just didn’t feel like singing it. So she said, “Well then you have to go in to the principal and explain that to him. All of the children in the school take part and you’ve got to do it too.” OK, I went in to the principal and he asked me why I wasn’t singing the “Star Spangled Banner”….
Finally I told him. “Because it says, ‘The land of the free and the home of the brave’ and this is not the land of the free. I don’t know who’s brave but I’m not going to sing it any more.” Then he said, “Why you’ve been singing it all the time haven’t you? How come you want to stop now?” And I told him about coming through the park and if I could not swing in those swings in the park, and I couldn’t sit in the park, and I could only walk in Shakespeare Park, then it couldn’t be the land of the free. “Who’s free?” He didn’t say anything.
Then he said, “Well, you could pledge allegiance to your flag.” I said, “It’s not my flag. The flag is with freedom. If the land is free and the flag is mine, then how come I can’t do like the white kids?”….
September 14 is recognized as the anniversary of the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key in 1814. Do your textbooks mention Key’s role in defending slavery and fighting the abolitionist movement? For example, during the Snow Riot in Washington, D.C. in 1835, Key fought to make sure this was not the “land of the free.”
In light of the response to San Francisco 49ers Colin Kaepernick‘s refusal to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” we share the essay below by Jefferson Morley about Francis Scott Key. For additional reading, see “Colin Kaepernick Is Righter Than You Know: The National Anthem Is a Celebration of Slavery” by Jon Schwarz and Howard Zinn’s essay, “America’s Blinders.”
We also recommend reading about other athletes who have spoken out against injustice, including Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Toni Smith, Muhammad Ali, John Carlos, and Tommie Smith. For updated news about sports and politics, read Dave Zirin’s Edge of Sports columns.
By Jefferson Morley
The lyricist of U.S. patriotism was a defender of slavery, and an enemy of free speech.
One hundred and eighty or so years ago, the paths of three men crossed in Washington, D.C., the capital city of the United States. The most famous of the three was Francis Scott Key.
He was the scion of Maryland’s slave-holding aristocracy and is famous for having written “The Star Spangled Banner.”
When the three men’s paths crossed, Key was the district attorney of the city of Washington, a prestigious post.
The most enterprising of the three men was Beverly Randolph Snow, an Epicurean chef of mixed race heritage. He had bought his way out of slavery and came to Washington to seek his fortune.
Long before the contemporary age of ego-driven chefs, Snow called himself the “National Restaurateur.”
The unluckiest of the three was John Arthur Bowen, a 19-year-old boy, a slave, whom Key charged with attempted murder in 1835. The lives of these three men intersected on the streets of Washington, D.C.
Francis Scott Key was politically ambitious and religiously observant. He was no Epicurean, renouncing luxury in all of its forms. Yet he, too, ate at Mr. Snow’s restaurant at the corner of Sixth and Pennsylvania, which was known as “the Epicurean Eating House.”
Snow’s place offered a natural rendezvous for Key and his political associates. They were lawyers practicing in the courthouse up the street, western land speculators visiting the capital on business, and innumerable congressmen living in the boarding houses.
Mr. Key respected Snow, the restaurant’s mulatto proprietor, even if he did not always like his ostentatious style.
Key prided himself as a humanitarian. As a young lawyer, he had relished defending individual colored people in court. Some even called him “the Blacks’ lawyer.”
By 1835, in the timeless ways of Washington, Key had parlayed his law practice into political connections with the network of editors, landowners, and slave masters around General Andrew Jackson.
In 1833, President Jackson rewarded Key with the office of District Attorney. Key had reached a pinnacle of the political power.
But it was in a time of trouble in the United States. In the 1830s, small groups of Americans, white and Black, started calling for the immediate abolition of slavery. For some Americans, this was a threatening message.
In 1835 alone, the 25 states experienced no less than 53 riots, almost all related to issues of race. Most involved attacks by mobs of white men on free Blacks and white anti-slavery speakers.
The violence of the summer of 1835 forged a new notion in American life, at least in the Northern states: that defending the republic required opposing the slave masters of the South.
At the beginning of the year, there were 200 anti-slavery societies across the northern tier of the country. At the end, 527. By 1837, there were 1,000.
In this cataclysm, the paths of Francis Scott Key, Beverly Snow, and Arthur Bowen crossed.
In Washington City, the events started when 19-year-old Arthur Bowen, servant in the home of Anna Thornton, attended a clandestine “talking society.” There, young enslaved men talked among themselves about slavery and what they could do about it.
After the meeting broke up, Bowen and a friend continued to talk and drink in Lafayette Park, across the street from the presidential mansion.
Returning home, Bowen groped in the dark, picked up an ax that he cradled in his arm and mistakenly entered the bedroom where his owner Mrs. Thornton, her mother and his own mother, also Mrs. Thornton’s slave, were sleeping.
Whatever Bowen intended in his inebriated state, the startled women woke up the whole neighborhood, which resulted in a manhunt for Bowen and his eventual incarceration. This one event had many ramifications for many lives.
The events of August 1835 would soon be dubbed the “Snow Riot” or the “Snow-Storm” in recognition of the central role that Beverly Snow’s singular personality played in igniting popular passion.
In the shocking news of Arthur Bowen’s alleged attack on Mrs. Thornton, many a white man saw signs of an incipient slave rebellion.
Crowds of white men converged on the city jail in Judiciary Square, calling for the head of Arthur Bowen. When they couldn’t get their hands on him, they turned on Beverly Snow, the capital’s restaurateur and best-known free man of color. [The rioters went after others as well. One of the people who was attacked and run out of town during the riot was teacher and abolitionist Rev. John F Cook.]
Snow’s notoriety, as well as his success, did not sit well with many whites. Nevertheless, amid the tumult, Anna Thornton—in acts that were very brave for those days—made every effort to save Arthur Bowen.
The famous Mr. Key had a different agenda. He was a loyal lieutenant of President Jackson, whose supporters had famously taken over Washington from day one, and who himself was an unapologetic supporter of slavery.
Key personally prosecuted the case against Arthur Bowen, which he won, and then went after the rioters during the “Snow-Storm” in August 1835.
Key wanted to reestablish law and order in the nation’s capital and protect the white man’s right to own property in people. The constitution, in Key’s view, required no less.
In the spring of 1836, Key also brought charges against Reuben Crandall, a New York doctor who had brought abolitionist pamphlets to Washington.
The courtroom debate in U.S. v. Reuben Crandall crystallized how new ideas of rights introduced by the free people of color and their white allies had galvanized popular thinking in the mid-1830s.
The anti-slavery movement had forced three radical ideas into the realm of American politics: no property in people, multiracial citizenship, and the freedom to advocate for both.
The audacity of those ideas was effective. In the 1820s, the organized anti-slavery movement in the United States was still very much on the margins. The idea of immediate emancipation caught on in 1830.
From 1838 to 1839, the 25th U.S. Congress received almost 1,500 petitions signed by more than 100,000 people. Eighty percent supported the abolition of slavery in the capital. The tide would not be stemmed.
Francis Scott Key lost his bid to discredit the antislavery movement in the court of public opinion. The jury acquitted Crandall of all charges.
The defeat and family tragedies in 1835 sapped Key’s ambition. He resigned from the district attorney’s job in 1840, but remained a keen advocate of African colonization and sharp opponent of the antislavery movement. He died in January 1843.
Key’s life attests to the complicated and contradictory stances of people of the time. For years, Abraham Lincoln, too, favored colonization. However, as a young Congressman from Illinois, he also signed a petition to free the slaves in the District of Columbia.
The country would go on—and still goes on—to experience how very difficult it is to have a “land of the free and home of the brave.”
This essay is based on and contains excerpts from the author’s book, Snow-Storm in August, The Struggle for American Freedom and Washington’s Race Riot of 1835 (First Anchor Books, 2013). Read an excerpt from the book on Salon.com. Copyright 2012 by Jefferson Morley. Reprinted with permission of the author from the Globalist.
Jefferson Morley is the author of Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835. He has worked as an editor and reporter at the Washington Post, the Nation, the New Republic, and Harper’s Magazine. His work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post Book World, Reader’s Digest, Rolling Stone, and Slate. His first book was Our Man in Mexico: Winston Scott and the Hidden History of the CIA.
Dayshaun is volunteering—reluctantly—with his mother at the local community garden when suddenly he time-travels back to the free Black community of Weeksville in Brooklyn, New York, during the Draft Riots of 1863.
Writing in the style of the popular Magic Tree House series, Zetta Elliott brings young readers a vital yet little known story in U.S. history from an African American perspective.
Dayshaun meets a young girl who explains why the riots began: “A lot of poor white men got drafted into the Union Army, but rich white men could buy their way out for $300. The poor men felt that was unfair, and so they set fire to the draft office. Then the mob started attacking every Negro in sight.” Another youth adds: “The rioters blame us for the war and they don’t want slavery to end.”
Before Dayshaun returns to the present, he—and young readers—learn a lot more about the Weeksville community and the riots.
For high school students, we recommend Zetta Elliot’s The Door at the Crossroads.
Published by Create Space.
Round and Round Together: Taking a Merry-Go-Round Ride Into the Civil Rights Movement, written for middle and high school students, tells the story of the Gwynn Oak Amusement Park protests.
During the week of July 4-7, 1963, hundreds of people gathered at Gwynn Oak Amusement Park for a non-violent protest against its segregation. Nearly 400 were arrested and the attention of the nation was soon focused on this injustice occurring in Baltimore.
Protests to desegregate Gywnn Oak began as early as 1955 (a year after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision), particularly on “All Nations Day” in September, when embassies were invited to show their culture. African nations were excluded. However, the early protests failed to attract much attention.
In 1962, protesters convinced the embassies not to attend as the struggle over Gwynn Oak garnered more attention and the protests became more organized. In 1963, groups including CORE, CIG (Civic Interest Group), the NAACP, and NCC (National Council of Churches) joined forces. The protests united students, community leaders and activists along with various churches and synagogues.
These groups decided to make July 4, 1963 — the 187th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence — a day of mass protests at Gwynn Oak, publicizing it ahead of time. Large numbers of people came from the Metropolitan United Methodist church on buses and drove from cities like New York, Philadelphia and Washington. Several hundred demonstrators arrived at the park, many singing patriotic songs.
As recalled in the video below, the protesters were beaten and jailed.
On August 28, 1963 segregation ended at Baltimore’s Gwynn Oak Amusement Park, after nearly a decade of bitter protests. Eleven-month-old Sharon Langley was the first African American child to go on a ride there that day, taking a spin on the park’s merry-go-round, which since 1981 has been located on the National Mall in front of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. [Description from Paul Dry Books and the Baltimore Sun Darkroom.]
ISBN: 9781589880719 | Published by Paul Dry Books.
“Round and Round Together tells the inspiring story of how a generation of college and high school students provided the energy and enthusiasm that ended racial segregation in Baltimore’s Gwynn Oak Amusement Park and changed the direction of Maryland’s history.” —James Henretta, professor emeritus, University of Maryland
“With clarity and passion, Amy Nathan portrays the struggle of everyday citizens to end racial segregation in Baltimore. This compelling history, for and about young people, is simple but profound like freedom itself.” —Taylor Branch, author of the trilogy America in the King Years
Amy Nathan is also the author of another non-fiction title for middle school on an important story in the history of the Civil Rights Movement, Take a Seat — Make a Stand: A Hero in the Family: The Story of Sarah Key Evans, a Civil Rights Hero Who Would Not Be Moved.
See the documentary All the King’s Horses: The Story of Gwynn Oak Amusement Park by Beverly and Pete O’Neal.
Read the first chapter of Round and Round Together online for free.
In children’s literature, Native peoples are too often depicted as peoples of the past. They ride horses, their dark hair flowing in the wind as they chase down a buffalo. Joseph Marshall III’s book, in contrast, is about a present-day Native American youth. At the heart of the story is Jimmy, a young Lakota boy whose mixed ancestry means that, unlike his peers, he’s got light hair and blue eyes. He gets teased for his appearance. His grandfather decides to take him on a road trip. Along the way, Jimmy learns about Crazy Horse, who had light-colored hair, too.
Most stories about military leaders emphasize their heroism, but Jimmy’s grandfather also provides much-needed context about the grim realities of war. Mutilations, he tells Jimmy, are horrible, no matter who inflicts them. Jimmy and his grandpa visit a monument that marks the site of a battle. To Lakota people, it is the Battle of the Hundred in the Hand. In U.S. history books, however, it is the Fetterman Massacre—who tells history matters. The story of this warm and engaging road trip ought to be taught in every classroom. [Description by Debbie Reese of American Indians in Children’s Literature for Rethinking Schools.]
The Battle of the Hundred in the Hand was on December 21, 1866. Crazy Horse was also one of the leaders of the Battle of Little Big Horn on June 25–26, 1876.
About the Author
Joseph Marshall III, raised on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation, is an enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota (Rosebud Sioux) tribe. His internationally acclaimed works include nine nonfiction books, four novels, a collection of short stories and essays, and several screenplays. He divides his time between Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota.
ISBN: 9781419707858 | Published by Amulet Books.
Re-directs to: https://zinnedproject.org/2016/06/civil-rights-movement-after-1965-not-in-textbooks/
During the early 19th century some African American men and women who broke their chains also gave the abolitionist movement its strongest verbal weapons in the form of detailed autobiographies that exposed the slave system. Perceptive, dramatic, and often starkly horrifying, these narratives dared to challenge their author’s former owners who sang the praises of human bondage. Having examined the slave narratives, recent scholars have judged them historically accurate and reliable, and the most significant form of early African American literature.
The six narratives in this volume are: Linda Brent, who was held in sexual bondage until she fled to freedom and wrote her story; William Wells Brown, a runaway who became the first African American novelist and playwright; James Pennington who escaped to become a minister and civil rights activist in Brooklyn; Lunsford Lane, an inventor/entrepreneur who purchased his family’s freedom; Jacob Stroyer, who was liberated during the war and became a minister in Salem, Massachusetts; and Moses Grandy, who escaped to England and wrote his book. [Publisher’s description.]
William Loren Katz is the author of 33 books and editor of 212 others on people of color, and has been a researcher of African American History since 1945. He is the author of Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage, The Lincoln Brigade: A Picture History, and various articles at the Zinn Education Project.
ISBN: 9780865434141 | Published by Africa World Press.
Lewis Michaux’s itch for books led him to found and run the National Memorial African Bookstore in Harlem for four decades beginning in the early 1930s. The store played a key role in African American history as a hub of knowledge, culture, and activism. Michaux’s great-niece Vaunda Nelson introduces the bookstore to young readers through the eyes of the bookseller’s son, Lewis Michaux Jr. Nelson also wrote a Coretta Scott King Award-winning book about the bookstore for middle to high school readers called No Crystal Stair. Both books would be valuable additions to any classroom collection on Black history. [Description from Rethinking Schools.]
ISBN: 9780761339434 | Published by Lerner Books.
On May 17, 1968, nine men and women entered the Selective Service Offices in Catonsville, Maryland, removed several hundred draft records, and burned them with homemade napalm in protest against the war in Vietnam. The nine were arrested and, in a highly publicized trial, sentenced to jail.
This act of civil disobedience intensified protest against the draft, prompted debate in households in Maryland and across the nation, and stirred angry reaction on the part of many Americans. It also propelled the nine Catholic participants—especially priest brothers Daniel and Philip Berrigan—into the national spotlight.
The Catonsville action reflected not only the nature of the Vietnam antiwar movement in 1968, but also the larger context of social forces that were reshaping American culture in the 1960s.
A fine resource for teaching about the war in Vietnam and those who resisted. [Website description.]
For Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (May)—and all year long—we feature 20 Asian Americans and events of note in people’s history. We hope this list serves as an inspiration and starting point for students to do further research.
To suggest a name or event to be added to this list, email email@example.com.
|Wong Kim Ark||Grace Lee Boggs||May Chen||Ibrahim Chowdry||Silme Domingo & Gene Viernes|
|Gidra||International Hotel Struggle||Larry Itliong||Fred Koretmasu||Yuri Kochiyama|
|Kiyoshi Kuromiya||Patsy Mink||Peter Yew/Police Brutality Protests||Ai-jen Poo||Jung Sai Garment Workers Strike|
|Rinku Sen||Ronald Takaki||Philip Vera Cruz||Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886)||Merle Woo|
Wong Kim Ark
On March 28, 1898, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in United States v. Wong Kim Ark, holding that children born in the United States, even to parents not eligible to become citizens, were nonetheless citizens themselves under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Born in San Francisco to Chinese immigrants who were barred from ever becoming U.S. citizens under the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, Wong Kim Ark was denied re-entry to the United States after a trip to China, on the grounds that the son of a Chinese national could never be a U.S. citizen. Wong sued the federal government, resulting in the Supreme Court’s seminal decision that the government could not deny citizenship to anyone born in the United States. [Adapted from Asian Americans Advancing Justice and PBS’s “Becoming American: The Chinese Experience.”]
Grace Lee Boggs
A prominent activist her entire adult life, Grace Lee Boggs (June 27, 1915 – October 5, 2015) was born in Rhode Island, the daughter of Chinese immigrants. She studied at Barnard College and Bryn Mawr, receiving her Ph.D. in 1940. Her studies in philosophy and the writings of Marx, Hegel, and Margaret Mead led not to a life in academia, but rather to a lifetime of social activism.
Lee’s activism began in Chicago, where she joined the movement for tenants’ rights, and then the Workers Party, a splinter group of the Socialist Workers Party. In these associations, as well as in her involvement with the 1941 March on Washington, Lee focused on marginalized groups such as women and people of color. In 1953, Lee married Black auto worker and activist James (Jimmy) Boggs and moved to Detroit, where the two continued their activism. Jimmy died in 1993.
Boggs has rejected the stereotypical radical idea that capitalist society is just something to be done away with, believing more that “you cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it and responsible for changing it.”
She believed that it is by working together in small groups that positive social change can happen, not in large revolutions where one group of power simply changes position with another. With this philosophy, she and her husband founded Detroit Summer in 1992. In a YES! Magazine interview, Boggs explains, “We wanted to engage young people in community-building activities: planting community gardens, recycling waste, organizing neighborhood arts and health festivals, rehabbing houses, painting public murals. Encouraging them to exercise their Soul Power would get their cognitive juices flowing. Learning would come from practice, which has always been the best way to learn.”
Boggs continued to write books and be an activist. She died in 2015 at the age of 100. [From Americans Who Tell the Truth.]
Learn more in the documentary “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs” and form her books, Living for Change: An Autobiography and The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century.
In 1982, May Chen led the New York Chinatown strike of 1982, one of the largest Asian American worker strikes with about 20,000 garment factory workers marching the streets of Lower Manhattan demanding work contracts.
Chen, then affiliated with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, was one of the strike organizers.
“The Chinatown community then had more and more small garment factories,” she recalled. “And the Chinese employers thought they could play on ethnic loyalties to get the workers to turn away from the union. They were very, very badly mistaken.”
Most of the protests included demands for higher wages, improved working conditions, and for management to observe the Confucian principles of fairness and respect. By many accounts, the workers won. The strike caused the employers to hold back on wage cuts and withdraw their demand that workers give up their holidays and some benefits. It paved the way for better working conditions such as hiring bilingual staff to interpret for workers and management, initiation of English-language classes, and van services for workers.
[Description by Cristina DC Pastor, from the Feet in Two Worlds website.]
Read more about Asian immigrants in the workforce at the Feet in Two Worlds website.
“I talk for those of our men who, in factory and field, in all sections of American industry, work side by side with their fellow American workers to strengthen the industrial framework of this country.”
—Ibrahim Chowdry, in a letter given for testimony during the U.S. Congressional Committee on Immigration and Naturalization hearings in 1945
Ibrahim Chowdry was a community organizer in New York, who worked across racial and religious lines to build coalitions between Bangladeshi immigrants and Puerto Rican and Black communities. Chowdry escaped a British crack down over his political activities in East Bengal and settled in New York City in the 1920s, where he and his fellow East Bengalis initiated numerous community organizations which included pooling their money to help open restaurants and small businesses, starting organizations to empower their communities, and offering social support for new immigrants who moved in.
In the book Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, Chowdry’s son and daughter, Noor and Laila, recall his impact as a community leader by helping “ex-seamen with immigration problems,” “went from one New York-area hospital to the next, meeting with staff and asking them to call him whenever anyone was admitted with the surnames Meah, Ullah, Uddin, or Ali,” and “Bengali countrymen would call him on the phone and he would run off. If someone was sick or if someone died, he would make their funeral arrangements.” [From “Lost and Found: The Legacy of the Bangladeshi Sons of New York” by Nadia Hussain at Hyphen.com.]
Read more about the unknown history of South Asian Americans in Vivek Bald’s book, Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America.
Silme Domingo & Gene Viernes
In 1981 the labor leaders Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes were gunned down in a drive-by shooting. Domingo and Viernes were Filipino American activists and fishing cannery Local 37 union members who were involved in union reform and fighting for workers’ rights.
In an effort to address the discrimination and segregation towards Filipinos that had been going on for decades in the Alaskan seafood industry, organizers needed proof. Domingo and a partner posed as students from the University of Washington’s School of Fisheries and requested to document the canneries for a project. Instead, they gathered evidence of discrimination.
On Nov. 28, 1973, the Alaska Cannery Workers’ Association (ACWA, which Domingo and Viernes helped found) filed a class action lawsuit against several Alaskan fish companies, including one of the largest, the New England Fish Co. (NEFCO). It was the first time such an enormous seasonal migratory labor force was represented in a significant way with more than 700 plaintiffs in all. ACWA won a multi-million dollar settlement, and as a result NEFCO filed for bankruptcy.
Initially, the murders appeared to be retributions for reform efforts within Local 37 that threatened entrenched interests. But after a wide-ranging legal investigation launched by family, friends, and community groups, in 1989 a federal jury found that former Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos conspired to silence political opponents in the U.S. that resulted in the murders of Domingo and Viernes. The conspiracy involved the Marcos government, the president of Local 37, and a network of Marcos’ intelligence agents that operated within the United States since 1973, monitoring and harassing Marcos’ opponents in the U.S. [From “The ‘Cannery Murders’ of 1981 still haunt local labor activists” and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.]
Learn more in the book Remembering Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes: The Legacy of Filipino American Labor Activism by Ron Chew and the documentary One Generation’s Time: The Legacy of Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes.
During its 1969 to 1974 run, Gidra chronicled the dramatic changes in the Asian American community, and was itself a catalyst for many of these changes.
The roots of Gidra stem from a group of students at UCLA who approached the administration about starting an Asian American community newspaper in 1969. Rebuffed, the five each kicked in $100 to produce their own paper. Tracy Okida came up with the name, which came from a giant three-headed dragon from Japanese monster movies of the 1960s. Initially based at the newly formed Asian American Studies Center at UCLA, Gidra helped define the terms of the Asian American Movement for many and covered the fight for ethnic studies on college campuses, along with rising activism in Asian American communities. Though pan Asian American in its orientation, it was largely a Sansei enterprise with three-quarters or more of the staff being Japanese American. As the publication evolved and moved off campus to an office in the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles, its scope broadened to encompass an Asian American perspective on the international anti-imperialist movement, linking the war in Vietnam to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to other movements in Asia including Okinawa, the Philippines, and Korea. [From the Densho website.]
Continue reading about the history of Gidra newspaper by Brian Niiya, Densho Content Director.
View the online archives at the Densho Digital Repository.
The International Hotel Struggle
On August 4, 1977, after battling eviction for over nine years, the community of mostly Filipino and Chinese low-income senior tenants of the International Hotel (I-Hotel) was brought to a violent end in the early morning hours. At around 4 a.m., over 300 riot-equipped police and sheriff’s deputies, cordoned off the surrounding streets, encircled the hotel, and began to forcefully evict the residents. De Guzman, then the president of the International Hotel Tenants Association, described what happened: “Once the police and sheriffs got into the building, they broke into the tenants’ rooms. Then they started breaking things up, stealing, taking what the manongs [Filipino males] had, broke the toilets that way there were no toilet facilities, so the tenants could never return.”
Outside, more than 2,000 community activists and protesters created a human barricade trying to prevent the eviction. Shouting “We won’t move!” I-Hotel defenders—that included not only Filipinos but other Asian Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, student activists, religious groups and organizations, gays and lesbians, leftists, and community activists—lined up nine rows deep as the police started their frontal assault. The police were brutalizing people outside in front of the hotel, said De Guzman. They would run their horses up front and hit people with their clubs. They just tore people up, hitting them on the head, and jabbing them with nightsticks.
The building was eventually sold with plans to build a parking garage. However, the lot remained empty, and in 2005 a new International Hotel—now on the register of historic buildings—was built containing 105 low-income apartments for senior housing, thanks to the ongoing activism and advocating for fair housing. [Adapted from James Sobredo’s “The Battle for the International Hotel” and “I-Hotel Eviction Summary” posted on FoundSF.org.]
Browse lessons on housing and displacement.
Born in San Nicolas, Pangasinan in 1913, Larry Itliong immigrated to the United States in 1929 and worked as a laborer and farmhand in several states including Washington, Alaska, Montana, South Dakota, and California. During his time in Alaska, he earned the nickname “Seven Fingers” after losing three of his fingers in an accident at the cannery where he worked. Seeing the plight of his fellow Filipinos and immigrants who were mistreated and paid poorly, Itliong joined strikes and helped set up labor unions including one in Alaska.
On September 8, 1965, Larry Itliong, a member of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, called a strike against the Delano, California, grape growers in order to demand salaries equivalent to the federal minimum wage and the right to form their own union. Led by Itliong, more than one thousand Filipino workers walked out of their grape farms to picket, however, farmers replaced them with Mexican workers. As fellow striker Andy Imutan recalls, “There was no unity between the Mexicans and the Filipinos. The growers were very successful in dividing us and creating conflict between the two races. Larry Itliong and I decided to take action by seeing Cesar Chavez, the leader of the National Farm Workers Association. We met to come up with a plan that would be beneficial for everyone, including the Mexican workers.”
A week after the strike, they were joined by the Mexican-dominated National Farm Workers led by Cesar Chavez. The two groups merged together to create the United Farm Workers Union, with Cesar Chavez as director and Larry Itliong as assistant director. This strike would be known as the Delano Grape Strike of 1965 and would last five years. [From FilipiKnow biography and the United Farm Workers.]
Watch this remembrance clip from Asian Americans Advancing Justice:
Since 2015, October 25 in California is known as Larry Itliong Day.
Learn more about Larry Itliong in the documentary “The Delano Manongs” and in the NPR news report, “Grapes of Wrath: The Forgotten Filipinos Who Led a Farmworker Revolution.”
Fred Korematsu (Jan. 30, 1919–Mar. 30, 2005), a U.S. citizen and the son of Japanese immigrants, had refused to evacuate when President Roosevelt ordered the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. Korematsu, age 23, was arrested, convicted, and sent to the Topaz Internment Camp in Utah. Persuaded by Ernest Besig, then executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California, Korematsu filed a case on June 12, 1942. The premise of the lawsuit was that Korematsu’s constitutional rights had been violated and he had suffered racial discrimination. However, the court ruled against Korematsu and he was sentenced to five years probation. Determined to pursue his cause, Korematsu filed an appeal with Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and, later, to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1944, in Korematsu v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled against him, and confirmed that the denial of civil liberties based on race and national origin was legal.
In 1983, Prof. Peter Irons, a legal historian, together with researcher Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, discovered key documents that government intelligence agencies had hidden from the Supreme Court in 1944. The documents consistently showed that Japanese Americans had committed no acts of treason to justify mass incarceration. With this new evidence, a pro-bono legal team that included the Asian Law Caucus re-opened Korematsu’s 40-year-old case on the basis of government misconduct. On November 10, 1983, Korematsu’s conviction was overturned in a federal court in San Francisco. It was a pivotal moment in civil rights history. [From the Fred T. Korematsu Institute website and Of Civil Wrongs and Rights website.]
On Jan. 30, 2011, the state of California celebrated Fred Korematsu Day, the first day named after an Asian American in the U.S., now recognized by six states.
Yuri Kochiyama (May 19, 1921 – June 1, 2014) was a tireless political activist who dedicated her life to contributing to social change through her participation in social justice and human rights movements.
She was born and raised in San Pedro, California. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, her father, just out of surgery, was arrested and detained in a hospital. “He was the only Japanese in that hospital,” Kochiyama recalls, “so they hung a sheet around him that said, ‘Prisoner of War.'” He died shortly thereafter. In 1943, under President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, Kochiyama and her family were sent to a concentration camp in Jerome, Arkansas, for two years. This experience and her father’s death made Kochiyama highly aware of governmental abuses and would forever bond her to those engaged in political struggles. After being released, she moved to New York and married Bill Kochiyama, veteran of the all-Japanese American 442nd combat unit of the U.S. Army.
Kochiyama’s activism started in Harlem in the early 1960s, where she participated in the Asian American, Black, and Third World movements for civil and human rights, ethnic studies, and against the war in Vietnam. She was a fixture in support movements involving organizations such as the Young Lords and the Harlem Community for Self Defense. As founder of Asian Americans for Action, she also sought to build a more political Asian American movement that would link itself to the struggle for Black liberation. “Racism has placed all ethnic peoples in similar positions of oppression poverty and marginalization.” In 1963, she met Malcolm X. Their friendship and political alliance changed her life and outlook. She joined his group, the Organization for Afro-American Unity, to work for racial justice and human rights. Yuri was present on the day he was tragically shot and killed in 1965. In the Life magazine article “Death of Malcolm X,” she can be seen crouched in the background, cradling Malcolm X’s head.
In the 1980s, Kochiyama worked in the redress and reparations movement for Japanese-Americans along with her husband Bill. Support for political prisoners—African American, Puerto Rican, Native American, Asian American, and progressive whites—has been a consistent thread in her work. [From Asian Americans Advancing Justice and Women of Hope: Asian Americans.]
Learn more about Kochiyama in:
Watch this remembrance clip from Asian Americans Advancing Justice:
Born in the Heart Mountain, Wyoming, internment camp in 1943, Kiyoshi Kuromiya (May 9, 1943 – May 10, 2000) was a lifelong activist participating in several movements including civil rights, protesting the Vietnam War, LGBT rights, and AIDS/HIV advocacy.
In 1968, as an architecture student at the Univ. of Pennsylvania, he and some friends held a demonstration against the use of napalm in Vietnam by announcing that a dog would be burned alive with napalm in front of the university library. Thousands turned up to protest, only to be handed a leaflet reading: “Congratulations on your anti-napalm protest. You saved the life of a dog. Now, how about saving the lives of tens of thousands of people in Vietnam.”
Kuromiya spent the spring and summer of 1965 in the South fighting for civil rights, and became friends with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When King was assassinated, Kuromiya helped take care of the King children.
Kuromiya participated with the Gay Pioneers in the first organized gay and lesbian civil rights demonstrations, “the Annual Reminders,” held at Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell each Fourth of July from 1965 to 1969. He was one of the founders of Gay Liberation Front-Philadelphia and served as an openly gay delegate to the Black Panther Convention that endorsed the gay liberation struggle. Diagnosed with AIDS in 1989, Kuromiya became a self-taught expert on the disease, operating under the mantra “information is power.” He founded the Critical Path Project, which provided resources to people living with HIV and AIDS, including a newsletter, a library and a 24-hour phone line. [Adapted from LGBT History Month, NBC News, and ACT UP-New York.]
Learn more about Kuromiya in this remembrance video by friend Alfredo Sosa:
Congresswoman Patsy Mink (December 6, 1927 – September 28, 2002) was the first Asian American woman elected to Congress, and ran 18 political campaigns since 1956. Through it all, Mink has consistently taken moral stands on behalf of Asian Americans, women, and children—even at potential risk to her political career.
She attended the University of Nebraska and discovered that the “International House” dormitory where she was placed was designated solely for students of color because they were not allowed to live in the regular dorms. She protested and rallied the support of students, parents, and university trustees. Within months, the policy of segregated housing was abolished.
Mink originally planned to attend medical school, but her 25 applications were rejected because medical schools were all male. Instead, she went to the University of Chicago law school, married John Francis Mink, and had a daughter, Wendy. The family returned to Hawaii after Mink’s graduation, when in 1953, she became the first Japanese American woman admitted to the practice law in Hawaii. However, she could not find work as women were expected to be full-time mothers. Determined to practice law, Mink set up her own law office.
In 1956, she ran for the House of Representatives, won, and established herself as an independent voice. On her very first day, she offered a resolution protesting British nuclear testing in the South Pacific; the resolution passed.
Mink was selected to speak at the 1960 Democratic National Convention. In her speech to the convention, she stated, “If to believe in freedom and equality is to be a radical, then I am a radical.”
During her 12-year congressional tenure, she consistently voted for a progressive agenda. She introduced the first comprehensive Early Childhood Education Act (later vetoed by President Richard Nixon), authored the Women’s Educational Equity Act, criticized the Vietnam War, and spoke out against the secret bombing of Southeast Asia. In 1972, Mink played a key role in the enactment of Title IX of the Higher Education Act Amendments, which prohibited gender discrimination by federally-funded institutions. This legislation has been an important factor in ensuring equity for women in all educational programs, particularly school sports.
Mink was concerned about a woman’s movement that focuses too much on middle-class white women. “The ‘glass ceiling’ is an upper-class glass ceiling for those aspiring to be bank presidents and executives, not those who can never rise above the minimum wage. The majority of people working at minimum-wage jobs in the United States are women. That’s the glass ceiling I am committed to doing something about.” [From Asian Americans Advancing Justice and Women of Hope: Asian Americans.]
Learn more about Mink in the documentary Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority. Trailer:
Peter Yew/Police Brutality Protests, 1975
In April 1975, Peter Yew, a young Chinese-American living in New York City’s Chinatown, asked police to stop beating a 15-year-old whom they had stopped for a traffic violation. For his concern, Yew was savagely beaten right on the spot, taken back to the police station, stripped, beaten again and arrested on charges of resisting arrest and assault on a police officer.
His beating was the last straw as 15,000 Chinatown community members took to the streets to fight back against police attacks and brutality against their community. Virtually every shop and factory in Chinatown was closed on May 19th for the demonstration and signs reading “Closed to Protest Police Brutality” were put in windows and on doors. The community united around demands for the dismissal of all charges against Yew, an end to discrimination of the Chinese community, and an end to discrimination in employment, housing, education, health, and all other social services for all minorities and working people.
A week before the May 19th demo, several thousand people had marched on City Hall under an action sponsored by the Asian Americans for Equal Employment (AAFEE), raising demands similar to those raised at the May 19th action. The local business community and establishment refused to publicize or endorse the AAFEE action. A week later, the Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) called the May 19th action, bringing out old and young in one of the most united and militant actions ever taken by Chinatown residents. Although the CCBA tried to keep demands focused just on Peter Yew, the people of Chinatown clearly saw the broader issues, the fact that police repression was coming down in communities all across the U.S. This was shown by the slogans raised such as “Fight Police Brutality, Fight all Oppression!”
When the cops attacked the march, the people responded immediately and fought back. As the police tried to drag off one of the demonstrators, others in the march jumped the cops and fought them tooth and nail. When two of the people were arrested and taken to the police station, the crowd surrounded the station and secured the release of their friends. [From Vietnam Veterans Against the War.]
When Poo started organizing domestic workers in 2000, many thought she was taking on an impossible task. Domestic workers were too dispersed, spread out over too many homes. Even Poo had described the world of domestic work as the “Wild West.” Poo’s first big breakthrough with the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) happened on July 1, 2010, when the New York state legislature passed the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. The bill legitimated domestic workers and gave them the same lawful rights as any other employee, such as vacation time and overtime pay. Though the bill was considered a major victory, the NDWA did not stop there, expanding operations to include 17 cities and 11 states.
Read more about the NDWA here: www.domesticworkers.org.
[Description from Americans Who Tell the Truth website.]
Jung Sai Garment Workers Strike, 1974
On July 15, 1974, workers at the Jung Sai factory (manufacturers of popular teen clothing brand Esprit de Corps) in San Francisco went on strike after Frankie Ma, a union activist, was fired for “unsatisfactory work.” Workers at Jung Sai endured appalling conditions: they earned $2 per hour and their work days often stretched to ten hours with few breaks, and no overtime pay. They had just voted in the union and saw this firing as an act of retaliation. The workers—most of them middle-aged Chinese immigrant women—protested the firing and unfair labor practices, and demanded better working conditions and the right to organize. This united body of immigrant workers inspired popular support from community, student, and working-class populations throughout the San Francisco Bay area.
Their interaction with hundreds of Asian-American activists and supporters became an important turning point for Asian-American activism in the San Francisco Bay Area. The strike lasted six months and encouraged further immigrant activism, energizing a grassroots movement among Chinese immigrant workers facing similar unfair labor practices. After the plant closed down, claiming bankruptcy, the workers brought a suit before the National Relations Labor Board and won nearly 10 years later.
[Adapted from The Asian American Movement, FoundSF.org, Rethinking the Asian American Movement, and “Union Women’s Alliance to Gain Equality (1971-1982).”
“I learned a lot about how human beings change, about the sense of worth that has to be activated in order for people to demand more out of society, and the sense of connection that has to be activated for people to stand up together and for each other.”
Rinku Sen is the president and executive director of Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation, and the publisher of the award-winning news site Colorlines. As a racial justice activist and community organizer, Sen’s leadership at Race Forward has generated some of the most impactful racial justice successes, including the Drop the I-Word campaign aimed at media outlets to stop referring to immigrants as “illegal.” This resulted in the Associated Press, USA Today, L.A. Times, and many more dropping the i-word, affecting millions of readers every day.
Born in India, her family moved to upstate New York when she was five. Some of Sen’s earliest recollections of life in India were tinged by race, Sen told NBC News. “One of my earliest memories was of being in the bath scrubbing myself when I was four-ish, trying to get as light as my cousin, whose mother is Dutch,” she said.
Sen started her organizing career as a student activist at Brown University, fighting race, gender, and class discrimination on campuses. Majoring in Women’s Studies and receiving a Master’s degree in Journalism, Sen has written extensively about the race and gender dimensions of community organizing and is the author of Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizing and The Accidental American: Immigration and Citizenship in the Age of Globalization. [Adapted from Race Forward, NBC News, and Stir It Up.]
Learn more about Sen and the work of Race Forward at www.raceforward.org.
Ronald Toshiyuki Takaki (April 12, 1939 – May 26, 2009) was the author and editor of more than 20 books, including Strangers From a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans (1989) and A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (1993).
Takaki established UC Berkeley‘s PhD program in ethnic studies, the first of its kind in the nation. “Ron Takaki elevated and popularized the study of America’s multiracial past and present like no other scholar, and in doing so had an indelible impact on a generation of students and researchers across the nation and world,” according to Don T. Nakanishi, director of UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center.
Born in Honolulu on April 12, 1939, he was the grandson of a Japanese immigrant who went to Hawaii in 1886 to work in the sugar cane fields. After his father died, Takaki, who was seven, was raised by his mother and Chinese stepfather. He attended the College of Wooster in Ohio, where he was one of two Asian Americans on campus. This experience gave him a new awareness of himself as an ethnic American. Takaki recalled in a 2000 Lincoln Journal Star interview that one of his professors “asked me how long I’d been in this country, where did I learn to speak English. I told him I was from Hawaii and he says, ‘But how long have you been in this country?’ I guess I didn’t look American.”
Takaki went on to earn a master’s degree in 1962, and a Ph.D. in history in 1967 from UC Berkeley, where he became drawn to campus activism, including the Free Speech Movement. “I was born intellectually and politically in Berkeley in the ’60s,” he told a San Francisco Chronicle reporter in 2003.
In 1966, he was hired to teach UCLA’s first Black history course in the wake of the explosive Watts riots. When a student in the Black history class asked him which revolutionary tools he could teach them, Takaki replied: “We’re going to study the history of the U.S. as it relates to African Americans. We’re going to strengthen our critical thinking skills and our writing skills. These can be revolutionary tools if we make them so.”
In 1971, Takaki returned to UC Berkeley as the Department of Ethnic Studies’ first full-time teacher. He became wildly popular, filling auditoriums with hundreds of students hungry for perspectives on the struggles of America’s minority groups. Takaki served as chair of ethnic studies from 1975-77, and in the mid-1980s established at UC Berkeley the nation’s first doctorate program in ethnic studies. He then turned his attention to ensuring that each student satisfy an American Cultures requirement to graduate. He was a vigorous proponent of multicultural education and a vocal opponent of Proposition 209, the 1996 California ballot initiative that rolled back affirmative action policies in state-funded institutions. [From Los Angeles Times and UC Berkeley News.]
Learn more about Ronald Takaki.
Philip Vera Cruz
‘The movement should be the most important thing. … The movement must go beyond its leaders.”
Philip Vera Cruz (December 25, 1904 – June 12, 1994), a Filipino immigrant, worked in the midwest then moved to California in 1943 becoming a farm worker. He joined the Agricultural Worker Organizing Committee (AWOC) and soon became a leader in farm worker’s rights. In 1965, he was an active force in the AWOC decision to strike against grape growers in Delano, CA. The strike and boycott soon won the support of Cesar Chavez and the National Farm Workers of America, and led to the eventual merging of the two groups to form the United Farm Workers. Vera Cruz was elected a vice president of the union, a position he held until he left the union in protest in 1977. Cruz also formed the Farm Workers Credit Union and created Agbayani Village, a retirement community for older farm workers.
Throughout his career Vera Cruz worked for migrant and farm worker rights, and was active in the Asian American, especially Filipino, rights movement and community.
Vera Cruz once wrote, “Leadership, I feel, is only incidental to the movement. The movement should be the most important thing. If the leader becomes the most important part of the movement, then you don’t have a movement after the leader is gone. The movement must go beyond its leaders. It must be something that is continuous, with goals and ideals that the leadership can build on.” [Adapted from the Walter P. Ruether Library biography.]
Watch this remembrance clip from Asian Americans Advancing Justice:
Yick Wo v. Hopkins
On May 10, 1886, Lee Yick won a Supreme Court case that ensured that all people—citizens and non-citizens—had equal protection under the law.
Lee Yick and Wo Lee, Chinese immigrants, ran laundries in San Francisco. In 1880, San Francisco passed a law requiring a permit for laundries housed in wooden buildings as they were more vulnerable to fires. Of the 320 laundries in San Francisco, 310 were in wooden buildings, and most of them—240—were owned by Chinese persons. Not one Chinese laundry applicant was issued a permit. When Sheriff Hopkins tried to arrest Yick and Lee for not having a permit, they refused to pay the $10 fine, and were jailed. Each sued, arguing that the fine and discriminatory enforcement of the ordinance violated their rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Their cases, compiled under the name Yick Wo v. Hopkins, was argued at the Supreme Court in 1886 (Yick Wo was the name of the laundry that Lee Yicked worked at).
In an unanimous opinion authored by Justice T. Stanley Matthews, the court concluded that, despite the impartial wording of the law, its biased enforcement violated the Equal Protection Clause. According to the court, even if the law is impartial on its face, “if it is applied and administered by public authority with an evil eye and an unequal hand.” The kind of biased enforcement experienced by the plaintiffs, the court concluded, amounted to “a practical denial by the state of that equal protection of the law” and therefore violated the provision of the Fourteenth Amendment. [Adapted from PBS’s “The Strange Case of the Chinese Laundry,” Oyez.org, and the Human Rights and Constitutional Rights website.]
In 1982, Merle Woo challenged UC Berkeley after being fired from her job as a lecturer in Asian American Studies/Ethnic Studies (AAS). Woo, a member of the Freedom Socialist Party, Radical Women, an open lesbian, and a renowned poet, was fired after criticizing the increasing conservatism of tenure-track faculty in UC’s Asian American Studies Department. Her 1982 federal and state lawsuits charged the university with discrimination based on race, sex, political ideology, and sexual orientation. As Woo explained in a news release, “They fired me because I was visible. I took my protected free speech rights seriously, spoke out against the imminent death of Ethnic Studies, spoke out about who I am, totally and fully and with dignity.” Woo’s supporters included Angel Davis, Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, Barbara Smith, Congressman Ron Dellums, Gloria Steinem, and Mitsuye Yamada.
Woo won the free speech/multi-discrimination case against UC Berkeley and was reinstated in 1984, only to be fired again in 1986. In 1989, she won a union arbitration against UC Berkeley. [Adapted from Proud Heritage: People, Issues, and Documents of the LGBT Experience, Freedom Socialist: Voice of Revolutionary Feminism, and The Merle Woo Project Prize.]
Founded in 1991 by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Teaching Tolerance provides free educational materials to teachers and other school practitioners in the U.S. and Canada.
Their magazine is sent to 450,000 educators twice annually and they produce free videos for the classroom. (See two examples below in Related Materials.)
Teaching Tolerance offers a collection of readings and lessons called Perspectives for a Diverse America.
More than 5,000 schools participate in their annual Mix It Up at Lunch Day program.
The National Visionary Leadership Project (NVLP) has recorded and preserved more than 330 high-quality professional video interviews with African-American elders, age 70 and older, through its Oral History Archive, housed in the U.S. Library of Congress and available through the NVLP website. Two of the hundreds of interviewees are pictured below.
The Choices Program at Brown University offers professional development and curricula on current and historical international issues. For example:
The mission for Choices is “to empower young people with the skills, knowledge, and participatory habits to be engaged citizens who are capable of addressing international issues through thoughtful public discourse and informed decision making.”
While Choices takes a more mainstream political position than the Zinn Education Project, the program offers a very useful selection of student-friendly readings and video clips for teachers building a people’s history curriculum.